Why are students poorly prepared to write - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Why are students coming into college poorly prepared to write?

Writing is a complex intellectual task involving many component skills, some of which students may lack completely, some of which they may have only partially mastered. These skills involve, among other things:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Analytical skills
  • Writing skills, including:
    • writing mechanics: grammar, sentence structure, spelling, etc.
    • planning a writing strategy
    • communicating ideas clearly and concisely
    • constructing a reasoned, demonstrable argument
    • effectively marshaling evidence and using sources appropriately
    • organizing ideas effectively

When students lack skills in these areas, their writing may be unsatisfactory in multiple ways – from poor grammar and syntax to unclear organization to weak reasoning and arguments. Complicating matters is the fact that many students’ reading skills are also poor. For example, if they cannot recognize the main point of an argument in their reading, they obviously cannot respond to this point in their writing. In addition, students often lack the meta-cognitive skills to recognize the areas in which their prior knowledge and skills are insufficient – and thus which skills they need to work to improve.

During their high school careers, most of our students were not writing with the frequency we might expect, nor were they doing the types of writing that we will require of them in their college years. In a study at George Washington University (2007), first-year undergraduates reported that the most frequently assigned high school writing tasks required them to offer and support opinions, with a secondary emphasis on summarizing and synthesizing information. Students were rarely required to criticize an argument, define a problem and propose a solution, shape their writing to meet their readers’ needs, or revise based on feedback. Furthermore, according to a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education (2006), 61% of high school teachers said their students have never written a paper that was more than five pages. As a result, students have not had enough practice to develop a set of sophisticated writing skills.
When students lack skills in these areas, their writing may be unsatisfactory in multiple ways – from poor grammar and syntax to unclear organization to weak reasoning and arguments.

Moreover, students may have learned bad habits in high school that they need to un-learn. For example, some students were taught in high school to avoid the first person and thus may use awkward grammatical constructions to avoid it rather than learn the contexts when its use is appropriate.

Recognition of students’ prior experience with writing and the complex nature of writing can help us to more effectively design assignments and provide support as students continue to hone their skills.